Yom Kippur – Enduring Through Our Memories

Enduring Through Our Memories A sermon delivered by Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon for Congregation Beth Jacob at the Yizkor service of Yom Kippur, 5780 My mother’s […]

Enduring Through Our Memories

A sermon delivered by Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon for Congregation Beth Jacob at the Yizkor service of Yom Kippur, 5780

My mother’s mother was an Orthodox woman, the daughter of a Chasidic rebbe.  About 5 years before she died, she quietly approached my father – her son-in-law –  to ask him a kindness. She was worried, because her two sons were no longer religious, and in her community women were excluded from public ritual.  Who would say kaddish for her? Would my father take on this kindenss?

I’m afraid when my mother and I learned of this request, we both rolled our eyes.  My mother was a little wounded. She was of the next generation of modern Orthodox women, influenced by feminism. Of course she planned to say kaddish for her mother – she didn’t need her husband to do it for her! We were also sure my uncles would make a point of increasing their shul attendance during the year of mourning, so they could say kaddish, too. My grandmother’s request felt like a slight to all three of her children.

But looking back on it now, two decades later, the whole thing intrigues me. My grandmother did not intend to offend. She was genuinely worried.  But why was this so important to her? It’s true, some Orthodox doctrine holds that kaddish is a coded prayer for the soul of the deceased, to help them gain access to heaven.  But for all of my grandmother’s Orthodox observances, I never once remember her talking about God, or souls, or heaven or faith. Maybe that’s what was motivating her, but I don’t think so. I think the request came from a place more deeply primal.  

Because when I allow myself to think about my own death – may it please be far in the future – I realize that I want my children to pray for me. Not because of a doctrinal belief that my soul will need their prayers, but because I want them to set aside time to remember me.


Contrary to the teachings of the Orthodox day schools I attended as a child and teen, today as a liberal rabbi I usually teach that shiva, and kaddish, and yizkor are all for the living.  The dead are gone – the Holy One is tending to them. To quote Psalms, השמים שמים לה׳, “Heaven is for God, This world is for humanity.”  

But in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that’s the entire story.

Rabbi Ezray recently shared with me an article by journalist Stephanie Williams, entitled “Saying Goodbye to My Life.”  Williams was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at the age of 30, and the article is a heart-wrenching account of her last years on earth.  It was published 6 days before she died. Let me share with you her final two paragraphs:

Sometimes I feel like Captain Ahab, with my ocean of anger at a nemesis I can neither touch nor destroy.  I have been cheated of 60 years — two thirds of my life — and I want payback for all the trips I could have taken with my mom and Laurie, for all the books I could have written– the one I’ve titled The Circle, and the one about the preacher’s kid, and the romance set in the dog park.

I know I won’t get any of that. But here is what I am selfishly claiming: I want to be remembered, not just by those who know me, but by as many people as possible. I want to be remembered by you.”

Williams was young. She was ambitious. She liked to see her words in print. Not all of us feel the desire to be remembered by strangers.  And as for the dead themselves, I cannot know what they actually need or want from us. But I do know that in life, most of us want to believe that someone will remember us after we are gone.  

An essential piece of being human is a desire to impact our world. It starts in the first year of life – toddlers love toys that respond to their touch. All children love to create, and to provoke reaction. In young and mid-adulthood, we build, we publish, we teach, we parent – we look to make our mark and leave a legacy.  But as we approach death — whether by aging, or by an untimely diagnosis — our attention shifts. We value relationships more for their own sake, often feeling regret that we hadn’t done so all along. As Stephanie Williams wrote in her article about her last two years of life, “For once, I have the time and energy to get to know people, rather than zooming past them on my way to meet some deadline.”

This shift in attention may be in part the final manifestation of that human urge to impact our world. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, when our time is drawing to an end and we know that there will be no more long-term projects, what further impact we can have will be through the memories of those who survive us. 

I often refer to a book called “I Am A Strange Loop”, by cognitive scientist Professor Douglas Hofstadter. Some of you may be familiar with his earlier book, “Godel, Escher, Bach.”  When I first read “I Am A Strange Loop”, quite a few years ago, it changed the way I think about consciousness, soul, and what it means to be human. The book is engaging but mostly impersonal – a popular level explanation of human consciousness.  But for me, one chapter in the middle of the book breathes life into the entire work. In that chapter Hofstadter changes his tone, sharing thoughts and feelings that had been recorded in an email exchange from the year his wife, Carol, died. 

Carol Hofstadter died suddenly at age 43, while she and her husband and their two young children were on a Sabbatical year in Italy. Here is one of the reflections he wrote in the months after she died:

It was Monica’s third birthday – a joyous but very sad occasion, for obvious reasons. The kids and I, along with some friends, were at an outdoor pizzeria in Cognola, a hillside village just above Trento, and we had a beautiful view of the high mountains all around us. Little Monica, in her booster chair, was sitting directly across the table from me. Because it was such an emotional occasion, one that Carol would have so much wanted to be part of, I tried to look at Monica ‘for Carol’… (p. 232)

Most of that chapter is an exploration of that desire to see the world for Carol. She had been cheated of years of life’s experiences. He felt he was carrying her in his memories, and experiencing their children’s childhood for the both of them.  Here is another snippet from the Carol chapter of “I Am A Strange Loop”, explaining his thinking a little more philosophically:

The name ‘Carol’ denotes, for me, far more than just a body, which is now gone, but rather a very vast pattern, a style, a set of things including memories, hopes, dreams, beliefs, loves, reactions to music, sense of humor, self-doubt, generosity, compassion, and so on. These things are to some extent shareable….a bit like software on a diskette. And my obsessive writing down of memories, and the many video tapes she is on…make those pattern aspects of her still exist, albeit it in spread-out form….there is a spread-out pattern of Carolness very clearly discernable in this physical world. And in that sense, Carolness survives. (p. 230)

In other words, Hofstadter believes that when he accesses his memories of Carol, he is actually bringing her back into this world. Not in her entirety – the full Carol is gone forever – but like a halo or a shadow, there is still something of her soul that can live through his memories. And yes, Hofstadter uses the word “soul” to describe what he’s talking about, though his concept of soul is quite different from classic thought.

By Hofstadter’s view, memories are powerful. Hofstadter is not religious, but transfer his thinking into a religious framework and Yizkor becomes a serious obligation. Not just to ourselves, to provide comfort or inspiration for the living. Yizkor is an obligation to the souls that we are remembering.  It allows them to live on.

And it can be a heavy obligation, if the person you are remembering was difficult in life. 

My mother gave me permission to share that her mother was not easy.  Most people loved my grandmother- she was charismatic, and generous. But she had a tough life, and she’d been hurt in ways that made loving relationships hard. 

In her last two years, cognitive decline changed my grandmother’s personality. Often, cognitive decline leads to a worsening of personality – more anger, more stubbornness. But in my grandmother’s case it was the opposite. She became undemanding and docile. I remember my mother shaking her head and saying, “It’s as if she’s been declawed.” 

In those two years of nurturing my grandmother without receiving nastiness back from her, my mother let go of her anger.  I don’t know if it would have been possible for her to do that when my grandmother was her full self – because my grandmother kept adding new wounds on top of old ones. It was only when my grandmother was reduced to a shadow of her former self that my mother could complete her own inner work towards her mother. Now, my mother told me, during Yizkor she only calls up the positive memories. Because there were plenty of those as well.

Not everyone is so fortunate.  Some of us have family members who were nasty until the day they died. Some cannot say there were also “plenty” of positive memories, and the hurt may still swamp anything positive that there was.  But if we can get to the point of fully acknowledging our own pain and anger, it can open the possibility of finding other pieces of that person’s essence. It’s anything but easy! I think the hardest part may be to allow ourselves to open to that pain. 

Through our memories, we bring a person back into our world. But not in the fullness of who they once were. They now depend on us. Almost like my grandmother depended on my mother in her last two years of life. If there are parts of a person that need to be released, we have it in our power to release them. 

When I try to think about it from the other side, considering my own death, it’s a real stretch to make myself imagine being present mainly through my children’s memories. I am certain my grandmother never articulated such an understanding to herself.  Yet, both she and I have had the sense that we need our children to set aside time to pray for us and remember us. 

For many of us here this evening, Yizkor fills a crucial emotional need.  Many of us need to remember the love of people we’ve lost, to feel their love again, through remembering them.  That’s for us. But the ancient rabbis taught that the dead need our kindness as surely as the living do. And it may be that setting aside time for kaddish, and yizkor, is not just something we do to comfort or strengthen ourselves. It is also our continuing kindness to the person we’ve lost. To love is to give, and we can continue to give to those we’ve lost, by allowing them to live through our memories.